Hispanics face many health obstacles: compared to other ethnic groups, a larger share of the population is poor, uneducated and has poor access to medical care and health insurance. Compared to whites, Hispanics have higher death rates from diabetes, chronic liver disease and homicide.
Yet, despite these facts, Hispanics are living longer than whites or blacks – and are surpassing the life expectancy of other groups – according to a comprehensive report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday. The data used for the report came from health surveys, death and U.S. census data and covered the years 2009 through 2013.
"For many years there has been a description of the Hispanic paradox, that despite … lower socioeconomic status they live longer," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, during a phone conference Tuesday.
There are two reasons for the paradox, he indicated. One is that Hispanics who immigrate to the U.S. tend to be among the healthiest in their home countries. Another reason, he said, is because U.S. Hispanics smoke less than other groups.
About 13.5 percent of Latinos smoke, compared to 23.8 percent of non-Hispanic whites.
"The fact that people smoke less makes it more likely that they will live longer," Frieden said.
The study also found differences between Hispanics born in the U.S. and those who are foreign born. Latinos born here experience higher rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer.
"I think that has a lot to do with the types of food that are marketed toward folks – for example, sugary drinks, fatty foods get a lot of play on TV," said Dr. Ken Dominguez, the CDC researcher who led the study, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Immigrants are healthier than second- and third-generation Hispanics, a clear indication that the “Hispanic paradox” has nothing to do with genetics. Frieden said the longer Latinos are in the U.S., the more their health begins to degrade because many begin eating more junk food or take up smoking.
"One thing that's clear is it's not genetics, because genes don't change when they come to this country," Frieden said.
Among Hispanic groups in the United States, Puerto Ricans appear to have the worst health.
Among other findings:
— Puerto Ricans have higher rates of cancer and heart disease than Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans or those with roots in Central or South America.
— Compared to Mexican-Americans and Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans have the highest death rates from cancer, heart disease, homicide and five other leading causes.
— Hispanics, as a whole, have a substantially lower cigarette smoking rate than whites, but the Puerto Rican smoking rate is the highest among Hispanics – as high as the national average.
"We think [the smoking rate] is the biggest reason" why Puerto Ricans look so unhealthy compared to other Hispanics, Dominguez said.
The analysis was specific to Hispanics living in the 50 states and did not include residents of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans represent about 10 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population. Mexican-Americans account for 64 percent, Cuban-Americans are 4 percent, and Dominicans, 3 percent.
Includes reporting by the Associated Press.